Written and Directed by: Matt Jaissle
Starring: Larry DuBois, Shawn Scarbrough, and Don Ruem
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Tell Satan he can kiss my black ass."
Back from Hell is not the first movie to be inspired by the works of Lucio Fulci, but it is the only one that features forks wielded as torture implements, credits boasting a Brazilian weapons consultant, and someone threatening to blow someone’s ass to Heaven rather than to Hell. What I’m saying is that Back from Hell might be even more outrageous than an actual Fulci movie. I mean, I don’t remember the Maestro ever shooting a scene where a guy rips someone’s throat out and tosses the chunks of viscera at another would-be assailant. Then again, I doubt Fulci was ever a twenty-year-old surrounded by his teenage buddies trying to rip himself off with a budget funded by their weekly allowance.
We’re in real deal homemade territory with Back from Hell, a 16mm odyssey produced over the course of five years in Michigan by Matt Jaissle and friends whenever they could find the time and money to shoot and patch together this mad transmission from the Midwest. Working with the basic framework of “hey, let’s cross-pollinate Fulci with The Evil Dead,” this crew does not otherwise lack for imagination, as they dare to weave a tale involving a Father Aaron (Shawn Scarbrough), his Hollywood buddy Jack (Larry Dupois), Satanists, zombies, ninjas, and the apocalypse. Conveniently, all of these things intersect at a barn in rural Michigan, where Aaron—haunted by a slew of Satanic-style priest slayings—meets up with his old friend, now holed up and paranoid about the Dark Lord’s imminent arrival.
Any doubts about this film’s ability to perform sheer magic are laid to rest early by a lengthy conversation between these two estranged buddies. For many films (especially those of this ilk), a stretch dominated by fifteen or twenty minutes of dialogue is a fucking death knell: here, it’s delightful because there’s no telling what might emerge from this duo’s mouths during the most blasé exchange imaginable in which one man confesses to killing several people before offering to show off the bodies in the basement. Jack especially is a hoot, as he transitions from wistfully recalling his days spent hanging out with Burt Reynolds to an episode that has him fending off Satan’s minions (mercifully complete with a flashback to break up the monotony with some well-timed throat-slashing). Eventually, he arrives at his point and casually drops the knowledge that he’s so intimate with Satan’s plans because he sold his soul in exchange for Hollywood fame. Remarkably nonplussed, Aaron can only support his old friend, even if he’s suspected of having slayed his fellow priests.
And once a couple of cops arrive at the barn to carry out Satan’s bidding? Forget about it: the only logical thing is to take up arms and hit the road to thwart Armageddon. But first, a séance is in order to hash out Satan’s plans (he’s remarkably chatty when given a human vessel), then a house-call to check in on Aaron’s aunt, and then…well, I think you’re starting to sense that maybe Back from Hell was made up as its amateur crew went along. It’s hard to believe otherwise when, after a particularly harrowing sequence involving an undead horde, Father Aaron nonchalantly turns to Jack and asks “what about Lucifer down there in the basement?” A fair question, not to mention a pertinent one when you’re staving off the end-times.
Since it’s borderline inept by most reasonable standards, much of the joy in Back from Hell is derived from watching its unreal events unfold before your disbelieving eyes. You don’t watch Back from Hell so much as you witness it evolve from a hangout movie to a road movie to a kung-fu movie involving miraculously materializing weapons and a pack of the most ineffectual ninjas imaginable (on account of them being slow, portly, and disposed to wearing blue jeans beneath their outfits). “Evolve” might actually be misleading since the film begins to stall towards the end before it revs up on two wheels and does a 180 with climactic switcheroo that’s absolutely baffling but charming, especially in its insistence that further adventures await in this world. Over twenty years later, it remains a tease will likely dangle into eternity as a reminder that perhaps Satan has won after all.
You will be inclined to laugh at Back from Hell, particularly its deliberate pace, jagged editing (reaction shots give the impression that everyone here is slow to react to, well, everything), disregard for continuity, and stilted acting. But you’ll also be inclined to howl in delight at its incessant willingness to entertain through every means possible, be it incredible dialogue, arbitrary plot developments, or gratuitous splatter. There is no shortage of blood splashing about in a way that would make Fulci proud: the stuff oozes in unreal amounts, constantly bathing the actors and soaking them in grue. Between this, the continuous assault of bizarre effects sequences (I haven’t even mentioned the best bit involving a demonic claw and a Bible), and the Frizzi-meets-Carpenter-meets-a-droning Casio score, Back from Hell crafts a vibe that echoes the masters, if ever so faintly.
In terms of Fulci, Back from Hell begins as a Gates of Hell movie before gliding into the moodier, more existential territory of Door into Silence, as the Midwestern landscape is transformed into a eerily vacant, purgatorial abyss where chainsaws and axes appear out of nowhere because the film’s internal non-logic demands it. Seeing it as part of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Video Vortex series was fitting because to witness Back to Hell is to tunnel into another dimension, one that’s filmed in negative and features hysterical freak-outs. It’s a dimension where demons bellow with dubbed tiger growls and the world’s only hope is a schlub with a 5 o’clock shadow dressed in stained sweats. Is this the Twilight Zone? No, it’s just Michigan, which firmly establishes itself as one of our greatest states for having gifted the world Back from Hell. I'm still not sure where the Brazilians fit in, though.
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